LARGO — The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a devastating blow to the local economy and Largo’s roughly 4,000 small businesses. But some not only survived, but they thrived in the hearts of their customers.

Late last year, the city of Largo once again teamed up with Tampa Bay Newspapers to hold the seventh annual Best of Largo contest in an effort to honor businesses owned and operated by local entrepreneurs.

The contest is divided into four categories, but this year features five winners because of a tie in the restaurant category. Tampa Bay Newspapers reached out to all five and asked what set them apart. Four businesses responded. Here’s what they had to say.

Restaurant Category

b-lrg-suzi.jpg

Suzi’s Restaurant

Suzi Barton

What do you enjoy the most about being a business owner?

I enjoy waking up every day knowing that I am living my dream and doing what I am passionate about. Serving my wonderful customers and conversing with the people in my community. That is not working to me, it’s doing what I love to do. I love to bring affordable and delicious meals to all who dine with us here at Suzi’s and provide a safe and happy environment. I enjoy making my homemade soups and specialties that our customers love. I love to see all the customers smile throughout the day. That is what I enjoy the most!

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your business?

Unfortunately, the pandemic has affected the whole world in many ways. It appears that many small businesses suffered severely, some to the point of closure. I feel that not knowing much about the COVID-19 virus was just as scary as not knowing the outcome. Government officials ordered us to close our doors to the public and stay home and be safe to prevent any risk of spreading the virus. This was incredibly stressful, thinking, ‘Will I be able to reopen and provide jobs for my staff? will I be able to keep my restaurant afloat?” There was just too many factors and not enough solutions. The bills did not stop piling up and money was not coming in. It caused a lot of uncertainties for my staff and I. I did my best to try and keep a positive mindset and give hope to my employees.

What do you think makes your business stand out among others like it in the community?

Here at Suzi’s, we pride ourselves in making our customers feel welcome and appreciated. I made it a thing where I started to ask all my customers what their names were, and my loving staff followed my lead. I love hearing my delightful staff, cooks and other customers greeting each other. Doing so has made the atmosphere of my restaurant a healthy environment and a positive space for people to gather.

How have both the Largo community and your customers supported you through 2020?

Suzi’s Restaurant experienced so many blessings from our local community. Our amazing customers purchased take-out orders, bought gift certificates, and even supported us by buying our Suzi merchandise like T-shirts and coffee mugs. There was communication of all kinds, and even the snowbirds stayed in touch, they would reach out to us to see if we needed anything during the difficult times. All of us here at Suzi’s are extremely grateful for all the love we received from our local community and we couldn’t have reopened successfully without them. We are so honored to be voted No. 1 in largo.

Following a year that has been crippling to many industries, where do you hope to see your business one year from now?

I hope to see my business flourish as it did before the pandemic. I know that it will take some time for things to balance out. It had been two years since I opened and we were at the best peak when COVID halted our entire year, but yet I still have faith that 2021 will be a wonderful year just as long as we have our good health and an optimistic mindset.

Joellas Hot Chicken Logo

Joella’s Hot Chicken

Ashley Morales, general manager

What do you enjoy most about being a business owner?

As general manager of Joella’s Largo location, I have enjoyed introducing our hot chicken brand to the community here. Since we opened our doors in 2019 in Largo, the hot chicken fans have welcomed us with open arms. I love seeing our repeat customers come back, again and again, to get their Joella’s fix!

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your business?

While business understandably slowed down a bit, it really did create a camaraderie in our company. My team and I learned to work together in a way we’ve never done before, and we feel like we grew as a family.

What do you think makes your business stand out among others like it in the community?

At Joella’s, our mission is to delight each and every customer, each and every time, by giving them the hot chicken they crave, along with the kind of hospitality that brings joy to their day. We care about the food we serve and — like Miss Joella says — we always want to do the right thing. It also goes without saying we have the most crave-able hot chicken on the market — hands down. And the fact that guests can customize their hot chicken with a choice of one of our unique six levels of heat (from no-heat Southern to extreme Fire-In-Da-Hole), makes the Joella’s experience one that can’t be beat!

How have both the Largo community and your customers supported you through 2020?

During the height of the pandemic, we were fortunate to have a lot of regulars, and for that we are so grateful. We were able to stay open, in large part, by them frequenting our restaurant and supporting us during this uncertain time. We were also fortunate to already have established carry-out and delivery services in place that enabled us to stay open throughout the downturn. Thanks to a combination of dedicated operations and support of loyal guests, Joella’s Largo has been steadily recovering its business since the onset of COVID.

Following a year that has been crippling to many industries, where do you hope to see your business one year from now?

Since we are still pretty new to the area, we hope to build brand awareness and welcome more hot chicken fans to our flock of loyal guests! We also hope to partner with local schools and organizations for our Dine to Donate and Feeding Young Minds fundraisers. We know that giving back to our community in this way, along with quality food and service, will help us establish ourselves as an important staple in the Largo fast-casual restaurant scene.

Business/Service Category

b-lrg-mouse.png

Mouse’s Sunset Tattoos

Eddie “Mouse” Massimiano

What do you enjoy most about being a business owner?

I love being a business owner because I can guarantee that anything that walks out the door is perfect, up to the standards I set in 1975 when I opened. I love the fact that we give people a unique piece of warm art, art that’s with you for eternity.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your business?

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected our usual out-of-towners who visit us every year and some walk-in traffic, but our customers know how we keep our shop. There is a 30-minute window between customers so that the areas used can be sanitized. We have never in 46 years had a health department violation and we are all up to date on current CDC recommendations. Fortunately, we have stayed afloat and are looking forward to a COVID-free 2021.

What do you think makes your business stand out among others like it in the community?

Well, there’s a lot good artists out there, but I personally have tried to fill my shop with the cream of the crop. The fact that we have been in business for 46 years speaks for itself, and I would say that the fact that I’m talking to you says the people of Tampa Bay have spoken.

How have both the Largo community and your customers supported you through 2020?

Our community has supported us here in Largo since 1990 and we love tattooing our first responders and veterans.

Following a year that has been crippling to many industries, where do you hope to see your business one year from now?

In the coming years, I expect us to grow in talent under the guidance of my new partner, Bryan R. O’Keefe. Bryan has 25 years of experience and will be filling my shoes when I retire in 2025, with 50 years of tattooing under my belt.

Retail Category

b-lrg-thrift.png

The Thrift Store of Largo

Jimmy Olson

What do you enjoy most about being a business owner?

The Thrift Shop of Largo enjoys the opportunity to serve the community of Largo. We also enjoy providing the best inventory, best prices and best service to our customers. When you work for yourself, you have the creative control to explore new ways of serving the public, and we like to find original concepts that other businesses have overlooked. For example, over the course of four years, we have developed and converted our store model into a complete estate liquidation hub. Opening our own in-house real estate branch office with Realty Partners LLC, we can sell the house, we offer estate sales with Property Yardsale Estate Liquidation services and offer both in-store and online consignment options, and affordable resale items to our customers with The Thrift Shop of Largo. Together, we offer the most efficient and convenient estate liquidation service in the Largo area.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your business?

COVID-19 has affected The Thrift Shop of Largo tremendously. In March, it seemed majority of our in-store customers vanished; the Canadian snowbirds were gone, the elderly population stayed home, our store was closed for several months and this uncertainty created many questions. Weeks prior, we had just registered our new real estate office at our location and had expanded our goals significantly. However, they say, “Chaos creates opportunity.” We taught ourselves new actions and creative ideas to overcome the virus. By pivoting effectively, such as designing a digital platform, we were able to withstand the major setbacks, and move forward. We kept in contact with our customer base, and were able to serve remotely through online transactions, digital photography and offered additional conveniences.

What do you think makes your business stand out among others like it in the community?

Pioneering and high standards. Over the course of four years, with a pre-planned strategy, we were able to develop an award-winning store location and grow our affiliates into “award-winning” and important services that nobody else has built, all under one roof. We are the first organization to create complete estate liquidation, where we can facilitate the whole liquidation process seamlessly, with the most profitable opportunities to our customers and clients. One call does it all. We are proud to have one “Best Real Estate Agent” and “Best Real Estate Company” in Tampa Bay with Realty Partners LLC. Also, we were awarded “Best Thrift and Consignment Store” in Tampa Bay. Under the circumstances, we powered through, and advanced our business goals.

How have both the Largo community and your customers supported you through 2020?

We have the most wonderful, loyal, repeat customers ... more than we could have ever hoped for! We work hard to provide the best inventory, best prices and best customer service in the Largo area. We are proud of having over 4,000 members in our local “Buyer’s Club,” where we conveniently track and locate items you are seeking to purchase. We are grateful to have won “Best of Largo” for the fourth consecutive year. Our customers are the sole reason we are in this position, again. We make constant efforts to keep in contact, offer special pricing, promote our inventory and make sure customers are taken care to our fullest capabilities. This philosophy applies to all our affiliate services as well. We utilize technology to revolutionize the thrift market and grow our additional benefits; and provide the most convenience, efficiency and expertise with all our affiliates.

Following a year that has been crippling to many industries, where do you hope to see your business one year from now?

We hope to continue the success of The Thrift Shop of Largo going forward. We offer “Upscale Items at Thrift Store Prices.” We are a busy shop with the best inventory of unique home furnishings, tropical décor, wicker, rattan, vintage bamboo, and other common home furnishings. Also, we hope to grow our vision to become the premier estate liquidation providers in the Largo area. We will sell the house as Realty Partners LLC, sell the estate with Property Yardsale and assist our customers further with custom consignment, an award-winning inventory, home staging and awesome, tropical and unique furniture, décor and household goods.

Home-Based Category

b-lrg-lawn.png

A-Premier Lawn Care and Landscaping

The winner of the best home-based business is no stranger to the Best of Largo contest. A-Premier Lawn Care and Landscaping also won the top award in 2018 and has been a consistent contender.

The company, which was opened in 2009 by Glenn Jr. and Stacey Shaffer, provides a variety of services, including cleanup, landscaping, palm tree or shrub trimming, weeding, planting, laying down sod, mulch and more.